How does Routt County make its budget?
The process to build Routt County’s budget ramped up last week, as department heads filtered into the commissioners’ hearing room, one after another, laying out their spending proposals.
Last year, departments were asked to reduce their budgets as the county was unsure how the pandemic would change the amount of money it had to spend, but this year’s revenue looks to be about 30%, or $4.7 million, more than initially anticipated.
“We know we have a temporary increase in revenue, but we have no idea what our ongoing revenues into the future look like,” Commissioner Beth Melton said.
The revenue spikes are up in sales tax, auto use tax and building use tax, with the latter’s revenue coming in at more than triple what was initially estimated. But commissioners see this money as a “windfall” and not something they should count on in subsequent years, as each of these taxes is being fueled by buying trends the Yampa Valley has not seen before.
“If things are one-time expenses, I think we will have no trouble approving,” Melton said. “We don’t consider our budget to be balanced unless our revenue projections exceed our expense projections over a 30-year timeline.”
This also does not include the county’s roughly $5 million from the American Rescue Plan Act. Commissioners have said they will engage the public before they decide how that money will be spent.
The county’s budget process stretches through much of the year, starting after the previous year’s books are closed around April and continuing through December, by which the next year’s budget needs to be approved. While not the most exciting, commissioners said this might be the most important thing they do.
April: Department heads and the county manager review the previous year’s books and any variances in what was actually spent to assess if any changes should be made to maintain that spending or if it could be cut back.
June: Commissioners review how revenues for the current year look compared to previous years at their budget kickoff meeting.
August: Department heads meet with county manager to preview their budget requests.
September: Commissioners hear presentations from each department about their budget, giving some input but not making any decisions.
October: Commissioners review all requests together, assessing how the current year’s spending will affect the budget over the next 30 years.
November: The finalized budget is presented to the public.
December: Commissioners vote to approve the budget.
In April, Routt County Budget Director Dan Strnad said department heads and the county manager assesses the variances in the previous year’s budget to understand what permanent changes may need to be made and where spending could be more efficient.
The process officially starts in June with a budget kickoff meeting, where Strnad said much of the focus is on how the revenue projections are shaping up compared to what was budgeted. This is when they take a high level look at some of the aspects of the budget that will surely increase, like staff compensation and, especially this year, fuel prices, Strnad said.
After that kickoff meeting, department heads start to put together their own budgets before a county manager meeting in August, where each presents what they are proposing in their budget for the year. Strnad said this meeting gives the county manager a heads up about any large funding requests, such as adding a full-time employee.
In the middle of September, each department head presents their budget request to commissioners. This part of the process started last week, with some of the county’s departments meeting with commissioners to lay out budget requests and any significant changes.
The size of these budgets can vary by department. While some, like the Public Works or Building departments, are quite large, others are simply the department head’s salary, benefits and other expenses. There are also a series of budgets for things like the Taylor Grazing Act dollars the county receives that don’t have a specific department and are housed within the commissioner’s office.
Commissioners do not vote or make decisions during any of these presentations; rather, they are generally looking to understand the request and might give some direction to any high-level changes they want to see.
In October, this year scheduled for Oct. 13, Strnad gives commissioners a “big-picture look” at the budget and how far into the future it is balanced. Because of the county’s pay-as-you-go system, every future expense, in theory, is accounted for.
“This carpet is scheduled to be replaced, and that money has been set aside,” said Commissioner Tim Corrigan, referring to the carpet in the commissioner’s hearing room.
This projection shows how choices made this year will impact budgets decades into the future and gives commissioners the opportunity to look at each department’s proposed budget in the context of the rest of the county.
After that, commissioners and the county manager will go through everything line by line to make sure that the county budget will remain balanced for at least 30 years into the future. This leads to the official budget presentation to the public, which this year is scheduled for Nov. 23.
“Through my tenure here, most of the time people do not come to this thing,” Strnad said. “If we do, we get a few people, and there are certain years where there is an issue of concern.”
The last step is for commissioners to officially adopt the budget with a vote Dec. 14. Strnad said there isn’t really a scenario where commissioners don’t adopt the budget then.
“We’ve never done that, we don’t anticipate that, and I don’t know why it would happen,” Strnad said.
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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